Photo by Stephanie Cabral

Testament—Return of the Titans

Testament is back on April 3 with Titans of Creation (Nuclear Blast), a return to form for the thrash metal maestros. In addition to some of their best songs in years, thanks to the twin guitar attack of Eric Peterson and Alex Skolnick, the band’s backbone is held together and driven by human drum machine Gene Hoglan and bass legend Steve DiGiorgio. Yes, this band has morphed into a supergroup. Lead singer Chuck Billy took time out from preparing for a European tour with Exodus and Death Angel to talk about the new album and Testament’s past, present, and very bright future.

Titans of Creation is Testament’s 13th album. Pardon the pun, but that is some legacy.

Unfortunately, time flies. [Laughs] But I’ve been fortunate to play this style of music for so long. From the beginning, our type of music never had a place in the mainstream. To still be doing this more than 30 years after joining [Testament] has been a blessing.

And now that so many classic metal bands share Nuclear Blast as their recording home, think of the touring opportunities.

There are a ton of possibilities. We just have to go to the label and ask “Who has a new record coming out?” It’s awesome. It’s like the European tour with Exodus and Death Angel that is about to happen. It only took us 30 years to put it together.

Will that tour package eventually reach the states?

We want Exodus to tour with us, but they need to release a new record. It has been six years since they released Blood In, Blood Out [Nuclear Blast]. Once they finish the European tour with us, they are diving hard into the next record.

These days, touring is essential to a band’s survival.

It is. It’s not physical record sales anymore. It’s not that the fans no longer want to buy them, but there is no shelf space available. Stores are not available.

Ironically, in 2019, vinyl outsold CDs.

Vinyl is still limited. There are not enough presses, especially in America, to keep up with the growing demand. But it has become a key part of marketing for some bands. CDs are no longer it. Some people would rather get mail-order vinyl. What I do like about Nuclear Blast’s approach is that they come up with a variety of colors and splatter editions, so the fans have a nice selection of editions from which to choose from.

If records no longer sell, what drives bands like Testament to put so much effort into producing great new music? Titans of Creation is easily the band’s best in years.

Testament has to be Testament. We can only progress as Testament. I cannot be influenced by music I hear going on outside [of our world]. [Guitarist] Eric [Peterson] does not play covers. He is totally focused on his own creations. That has kept us on our toes when writing new records. Although our records do not sound the same, you always know it is a Testament record when you hear it. That is the beauty of Eric’s talent: that he is always able to come up with that different Testament riff and that new Testament feel.

But I have also asked the same question going in to work on the last few albums: why do we even make records anymore when all people seem to want are singles? Thanks to the Internet, many people will only download one or two of their favorite tracks [from a record]. People don’t download entire records anymore.

It’s tough. You got to get out there and hit the pavement. It’s like you’re starting over [when you release a new record]. You have to tour and push the record. Some people may want to buy the CD, but don’t not know where to get it. They no longer have the option of going out to a record store chain to buy it. They don’t get to walk into a store, see an album and say, “I can get that record right here. Cool, it’s even cheaper here than anywhere else.” We used to sell a lot of CDs that way.

I miss the days of going to record stores and buying an album based on the cover art.

Ahh, to have that big, physical piece in your hands, the cover art and the inserts. You could read the lyrics. With CDs, you [often] need a magnifying glass to follow the lyrics to a song. It is not the same.

When my wife and I have friends over [our house], we’ll have a vinyl day. We will all pick out something and listen to it… on vinyl. It takes me back to when I was a kid. I miss it. That is why people are getting sucked back in by vinyl. Even younger generations, who never shared that experience are getting into it, which makes me wonder what they are thinking when they experience music on vinyl.

I don’t miss eight-tracks, but I do miss cassettes.

Nuclear Blast will have a cassette edition of Titans of Creation. It will be a cool blue color. It is definitely a novelty piece. We’re psyched that the label is gearing up for a good campaign behind the record. Our fans have been great and loyal to us over the years and it feels really good to come out with a strong record for them.

Testament’s bassist Steve DiGiorgio and drummer Gene Hoglan are key to the band’s sound, but they are newer members.

Those two have so much history; They’ve worked together for so long that they are solid. I feel that right now, Testament has the best lineup of our career, both on and offstage. We get along well. In this day and age we have to live together on the road for long periods of time and we enjoy each other’s company. We have not grown sick of each other.

Since returning to the lineup, Alex Skolnick has added a progressive influence to the band’s sound.

We knew where he stood musically even during the early years. Eric was the backbone of the Testament sound and how it would develop. Alex has always balanced things out with Eric. He will come in with logical things to try out: a melody here or there, and it always seems to work out. The way they bounce ideas off of each other provides a good balance.

It is important to have that balance when the members no longer live near each other.

We communicate through the Internet. When we do get into the studio that is where we work any kinks before we start tracking. Alex lives in New York, Gene lives in San Diego, Eric is in Sacramento and Steve and I live near each other [in the Oakland area]. We still maintain our band studio in Oakland, which is where we gather to practice. And we still call it home.

There are frequent Alex Skolnick sightings in NYC. The Times Square club, Iridium, is a home for his jazz band.

Alex goes full-on metal when he is with us, so he can enjoy playing other music when he is with his other band. It keeps him balanced.

Despite living apart, Testament maintains a special chemistry that has been key to its success.

The chemistry is obvious, especially on the new album. Steve’s bass lines drive the songs and Gene is just a monster. And the album’s mix is among [producer] Andy [Sneap’s] best.

Testament recorded the album at Trident Studios in Pacheco, California with engineer Juan Urteaga and then handed the tapes over to Andy Sneap [Judas Priest, Saxon, and Accept].

We kicked around the idea of going to England to work with Andy [on the record] before deciding to get everyone together in the Bay Area. The studio [where we recorded] is only 20 minutes away from where I live, so it’s convenient. Plus, Juan’s done a few records with us before and he communicates well with Andy. [The sessions for the new album] were really smooth and the result show. I think the record is much better than [our previous few records.]

Why do you think Titans of Creation came out so good?

I moved four years ago, and I put a studio in my house. It has been a convenient place to work. I write lyrics with Steve “Zetro” Souza from Exodus. He comes over and we lay down tracks. I get stuff from Eric and he works with me in the studio, so it has been inspiring. The writing and recording process has been a lot more pleasant [than in the past].

More pleasant?

We don’t write songs that end up sitting on a shelf. We don’t write extra tracks for a record. It’s like pulling teeth when [Testament] puts a new record together. But the process has gotten better since I [built] my own studio. I don’t have to wait for anyone to send me anything. I can create and come up with my own ideas and write lyrics. That, in general, is what made the last few albums stand out.

In the past, I would somehow—I don’t know what it was—but I would challenge Eric on some of the songs. I would say, “That’s not heavy enough” or “I don’t like that.” There was always something where the two of us would butt heads. We’re both stubborn. We would both take a stance. But that wasn’t healthy. [During the creation of] Titans of Creation, however, we didn’t butt heads. I took the music and I wrote the parts I heard to what I had. In doing that, it really challenged me. I didn’t say, “I like this, but I don’t like that.” I just did my best with what I had. At the end of the day, some of the best parts, some of the best melodies and some of the best lyrics came out. I don’t know if it was because the pressure was on [me] to come through. I don’t know. But it made me feel more ready; more prepared; and more creative. And I have more songs in me that are ready to go.

You blew my mind! Original singer Steve “Zetro” Souza co-writes lyrics for Testament songs? I thought his split with the band—then called Legacy—was acrimonious?

We’ve written together for the last four or five [Testament] albums. Zet wrote the [lyrics for] the first record [The Legacy], so he knows Eric and Alex’s guitar-playing style well. When it comes to writing, he knows what Eric wants and likes, so Zet and I work well together. He will take his interpretation of something and write a melody and a lyric and then I will add my little Testament twist and mold it the way I would approach it. That process works for us.

I always thought Zetro left Legacy/Testament on bad terms when he joined Exodus [following that band’s ouster of singer Paul Baloff].

Zet was my younger brother’s best friend. That is how we knew each other. Zet helped get me the gig [with Testament]. So, we’ve always been friendly.

Lyrically Titans of Creation is dark. Was that intentional?

It has to be metal. [Laughs] Yes, it is dark and it includes four songs about serial killers. Ironically, when I first started [composing lyrics] for the album, I was on an alien kick—aliens creating mankind. That’s where I was going with songs like “Children of the Next Level.” Originally, the songs were going to be futuristic and about space. Things, however, shifted into much darker [subject matter]. We just took the vibe of the music and let the lyrics naturally transform.

During your time away from Testament, you’ve also become an entrepreneur.

I’ve been dabbling in a little bit of everything. [Metal] Maria [Ferraro] and I stopped the management company we had when [partner] Johnny Z retired. I am just managing Testament these days. During the last five or six years, I have also been involved with a line of vaporizers and marijuana pipes []. We’re also involved with our tribe [Hopland Indians] up north, who have been growing marijuana. I am also involved in real estate. Yeah, I’ve started flipping houses.

*Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in January of 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.